rice field in asia farm

An interview with the founder of Grow Further: Part II

In this interview, the second of a 3-part series, our journalist interviews our founder about the mission of Grow Further.

Leonardo da Vinci was among the historical artists and scholars who relied on wealthy patrons. While many sectors have opened to middle-class participation, agricultural research continues to rely on a similar system today.

Grow Further: What makes Grow Further different from other food security NGOs?

Peter Kelly: Food security NGOs are mainly involved in serving farmers, distributing food, or preserving land. Unlike with other types of science, the nonprofit sector plays very little role in agricultural science and innovation. In the US, almost all agricultural research happens at land-grant universities, in-house at the USDA, or in the private sector. Internationally, the CGIAR (formerly Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research) and AIRCA (Association of International Agricultural Research Centers) are important, but they’re quasi-intergovernmental organizations with essentially no way for small-medium donors or volunteers to get involved.

Grow Further provides a way to support the future of food security through innovation. If you’re not in a food security career and want to play an active role, particularly in an international context, Grow Further is just about the only option.

Grow Further: Are there other organizations similar to Grow Further out there, whether in agriculture or other fields?

Peter Kelly: In agriculture, basically no. In other sectors, yes. Collective giving is a proven concept and one that has expanded significantly in recent years.

Since ancient times, many artists, and some scholars, have relied on wealthy patrons to support their work. In the mid 19th Century, charitable organizations with broad-based support emerged as an alternative, and have played a key role in supporting cultural and economic development. In the early 20th Century, the concept of a community foundation emerged, and community foundations have contributed to food security among many other things. To take one recent example, the New York Community Trust was part of the campaign that made public school lunches free in New York City.

Among the stories that inspired Grow Further were the historical successes of Rotary International and March of Dimes in developing a polio vaccine. Individual donors and volunteers of course now play a key role in research on other diseases as well. There are giving circles around the world focused on causes from education to environmental protection to arts, as well as angel investment groups that focus on social impact like clean technology or medical devices.

Grow Further: Why hasn’t this model for funding agricultural research already emerged or developed?

Peter Kelly: That’s an interesting question. I’ve heard two different demand-side hypotheses on this but personally think it has more to do with the supply side.

One hypothesis is that there’s a lack of overlap between potential donors with capacity (wealth and income), propensity (percentage of income donated), and affinity (interest in the cause area). Americans have above-average capacity and propensity (about half of charitable giving worldwide is in the US) but no collective memory of famine. Business schools are better than colleges of agriculture at turning out high-income alumni. This is a partial explanation but can’t explain why something like Grow Further doesn’t exist at all.

Another hypothesis is that individual donors are too focused on near-term solutions to support agricultural research. I don’t find this particularly convincing. Yes, individuals donate and volunteer for food banks, but they also support moonshot charities like organizations seeking to cure cancer. Within agricultural research, to the extent that individuals are donating anywhere they’re actually supporting some of the organizations with the longest investment horizon. For example, The Land Institute is working on the very difficult and long-term challenge of breeding perennial grain crops. Their founder is quoted as saying, “If your life’s work can be accomplished in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.” Every year, a large group of supporters converge on their research farm in Salina Kansas for a big party called the Prairie Festival.

I think it’s primarily a matter of supply, namely that the agricultural research sector hasn’t framed and marketed itself effectively. Why? For the same reason that there was no X until X–fill in the name of your favorite successful company. Usually there is no compelling reason. The world is full of opportunities and that’s just business as usual.

Grow Further: How is Grow Further aligned with effective altruism principles?

Peter Kelly: I wrote an essay on this topic for the Effective Altruism Forum several weeks ago. Food security innovation isn’t something that effective altruists talk about very often, but it’s the sort of crucial and overlooked cause area that the community should be taking much more seriously. Pretty much every other cause area is either something the community is talking about or something that appeals to a more qualitative value system, but agricultural research is a glaring gap in effective altruist priorities.

Food security innovation actually appeals to a much wider range of values systems than one typically finds in the effective altruism community. Interest in agricultural research cuts across cultural and political divides, both internationally and in the US. The Charitable Agricultural Research Act, designed to encourage private giving to agricultural research, was a truly bipartisan bill, and debates in the US Congress over agricultural research more generally are typically regional rather than partisan. At Grow Further, I’m proud of the diversity of our members, staff, and supporters–it’s much higher than at many international development organizations.

Grow Further: How would you sum up Grow Further in one sentence?

Peter Kelly: We connect people and ideas for a food-secure future. It’s in every staff member’s email signature, in most cases in multiple languages.

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